Thursday, August 30, 2007

South Girls Break Ground in Teen Programming

I first wrote about South of Nowhere back in December, after the Season 2 finale. I was a little riled up at that point because the events of the finale upset me and quite a lot of other viewers. I would suggest going back and reading that entry because I don't want to rewrite everything here, but I will try to summarize my points from December.

A speed recap of the first two season of SON: The Carlin family moves to L.A. from small-town Ohio. The family consists of mom Paula (a doctor), dad Arthur (a social worker), sons Glen and Clay and daughter Spencer. While the show follows storylines around various characters, the main protagonist of the show is sort of intended to be Spencer. When the sixteen-year-old starts at King High, she is a sweet, straight-laced, Christian girl from the Midwest. Then she meets Ashley Davies and everything in her life starts to change. A free-spirit and daughter of and 80s rock star, Ashley doesn't care what people think about her, cuts classes to go to the beach, and sleeps around ... with girls. But before Ashley discovered the ladies, she was with Aiden, the high school basketball star, and we see that there is definitely some history there. Anyway, since opposites attract Spencer and Ashley immediately hit it off. Pretty soon, her relationship with Ashley (charged with sexual tension, by the way) starts leading Spencer to question her own sexuality. She confides in Ashley, telling her that she think she might be gay. She then flirts around with Aiden a bit, trying to figure out what she wants. It turns out that kissing Aiden only makes her think about Ashley. But there are other forces at work -- namely Paula, Spencer's conservative and very Christian mother who constantly worries that Ashley is a bad influence, and Glen, Spencer's intolerant older brother. Troubled by her family's worries, Spencer turns to Aiden again to try reaffirming her heterosexuality. Even Aiden is not fooled, reminding her that she can't help who she is and that lying to herself might make things more comfortable for everyone else but not for her. The season ends with Spencer and Ashley (dubbed "Spashley" by fans) finally getting together.

Season 2 could be renamed the "Ashley is Scared and Insecure Show" because those themes seem to taint every episode. In Season 1, Ashley was portrayed as a pretty self-assured and confident person. But it turns out that a lot of that attitude was just a cover and a way for her to keep people at a distance (where they can't hurt her). Unfortunately, Spencer and Ashley's relationship immediately faces some hard times. Ashley's dad dies in a car accident and she puts up a wall between her and Spencer. Things are further complicated by Paula who continues to try diluting Ashley's negative influences by setting Spencer up with boys from church and flying out Spencer's old best friend from Ohio and by Ashley who is pressuring Spence to come out to her family. The much-anticipated "outing" occurs halfway through the season when Paula walks in on the two girls in a compromising situation. Things get worse when Paula tries to put Spencer through sexual reparative therapy to try "changing her back." This blows up in her face when the girls run away together for approximately one episode. After this Paula puts up with Ashley for Spencer's sake. Ashley, however, seems to be getting freaked out by the intensity of her and Spencer's relationship. Perhaps scared that Spencer will realize she is not worth it or will end up leaving her for some other reason, Ashley begins subtly pulling away from her girlfriend. Meanwhile, her and Aiden seem to be getting pretty chummy again. Spencer notices these changes and gets worried that the relationship that completely changed her life (and not in all good ways) is in jeopardy. She tells Aiden to back off. But at the prom (which Aiden is attending with Ashley's half-sister, Kyla) Aiden reveals that he is still in love with Ashley. Ashley, rather than immediately saying Spencer is the one she loves, hesitates just long enough for Spencer to run off in tears. Ashley runs after her, but they are interrupted by erupting gunfire -- a gang from some nearby school has shown up and decided to wreak havoc on King High's prom.

Now the finale was upsetting to me for various reasons, which I enumerated in my December entry. Mostly I was angered that the writers seemed to be toying with the idea of sending Ashley back to boys town, which I thought sent a bad message to viewers. Although when first asked so umm ... eloquently ... by Spencer, "What are you?" Ashley replied that she wasn't into labels. But other times she referred to herself as both "gay" and a "lesbian." She seemed to have been exclusively with women since her break-up with Aiden and frequently made comments such as "guys are so predictable", "boys are way too much trouble" and "I've already played that hand."

The prom incident came right at the end of a season that had been plagued with viewer complaints in regards to the double standard between Spencer and Ashley's relationship and the show's heterosexual relationships. While the various straight couples on the show enjoyed various make-out sessions, sex in the bathroom stalls, etc. the most Spencer and Ashley got was a couple of two-second pecks on the lip. The rest of the season viewers had to suffer through their lame foreplay, which consisted of brushing each other's hair, pats on the knees and lots of hugs. They seemed more like best friends than girlfriends. By the time the prom episode came, many were concerned that this was all leading up to a major "de-gaying" of the show.

That the show might be "de-gayed" was a legitimate concern, as lesbians have suffered a long history of poor representation in the media. Gay men, while still obviously underrepresented and discriminated against, have had Will & Grace, Queer As Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as well as unswayingly gay male characters in other shows, such as Sex and the City. On the other hand, ask any gay woman to name solidly lesbian characters on TV since, say, 1990 and she could probably name them all on two hands. Finally, in 2003, we were given The L Word, the first show that was actually about lesbians. If we take that away and look strictly at network television, there is virtually nothing. It wasn't until 1997 that network TV showed the first kiss between two lesbian or bisexual-identified characters in the show Relativity. In 2002 Buffy the Vampire Slayer had the first lesbian "sex scene" (in quotes, because it was so tame, it barely passes as a sex scene) on network TV. These little strides have seemed like nothing when compared to both the exploitation of the lesbian identity through a phenomenon known as "lesbian sweeps" and to the concept of the criminal/deviant/dead lesbian.

"Lesbian sweeps" is something that occurs often during "sweeps" time, when shows attempt to boost ratings. The lesbian sweeps moments typically include kisses or perhaps extremely short-lived relationships between normally straight female characters on shows. AfterEllen has a list of Top 10 Moments in Sweeps Lesbianism which include moments such as a kisses between Jennifer Aniston and Winona Ryder on Friends, Roseanne and Mariel Hemingway on Roseanne, and the short-lived relationship between Marissa and Alex on The O.C. One can imagine that it gets rather frustrating for queer women to see their sexual identities exploited for the sake of boosts in ratings and male titillation; to see their lives shown as something that can be briefly "dabbled" in before returning to the safe comfort of heteronormative existence.

The concept of the criminal, deviant, evil or dead lesbian is an extremely familiar and old cliché which basically insinuates that all lesbians cannot find happiness and are doomed to tragic ends. The evil lesbian or the dead lesbian often came up in early 20th century pulp fiction -- in fact, Radclyffe Hall's famous 1920s novel The Well of Loneliness was partially so controversial not because of the lesbian characters but because many did not feel the characters met the tragic demise necessary to show that lesbian sexuality was immoral. The archetype exists well into the 20th and 21st centuries, however. Sharon Stone's character in Basic Instinct (1992) is a murderer and her girlfriend ends up dead, Heavenly Creatures (1994) portrayed an obsessively intimate friendship between two girls that ended in murder, Lost and Delirious (2001) ended in the suicide of one girl after her lover denied their relationship. There are many more examples in both film and television. Many believed that the tragic death of Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer contributed to this discourse. Scholars believe that the theory behind this archetype is that gays and lesbians are immoral and deserving of hate or are tragic and pitiable and in need of conversion.

The point of all this is that South of Nowhere's Season 2 finale gave reason for concern. Would the first show aimed for a younger teen demographic to show a positive lesbian relationship be drastically changing its course? The answer turned out to be "no." And what I've seen so far of Season 3 shows that SON only continues in its groundbreaking portrayals of sexual identity among teenagers. The season opens with lots of craziness in a hospital ER. We learn that Aiden has been shot and that Clay, Spencer's brother, has been killed. Jump forward a couple of months and Aiden has made a full recovery. Meanwhile, we discover that Ashley freaked and got out of the country. Spencer understandably feels bitter that Ashley disappeared in her time of need and she is also still angry about the pre-shooting events involving the apparent love triangle. Ashley, however, comes back and tries to apologize, telling Spencer that she "chooses" her and that she loves her and thought about her the whole two months she was in Europe, blah blah blah. What follows is an astonishingly long smooch-session between the two girls. The show cuts to commercial break and when it comes back, they're still kissing! I cracked up during this part -- it was like the powers that be heard all the complaints and decided to try making up for the lack of Spashley action in Season 2 all in this one kiss.

Spencer ends up pushing Ashley away, however, knowing that the girl is confused and will probably only break her heart again. Sure enough, after being given the boot by Spencer, Ashley jumps right into Aiden's bed. But our little Spencer has grown a lot over the past two seasons and is now being portrayed as a strong, self-assured gay woman. This is nice to see. We have witnessed Spencer's full evolution from a somewhat timid girl who does whatever is expected of her into someone not afraid to be who she is. With or without Ashley, she seems to fully accept her identity. As the season has continued, Spencer seems to be starting up a new relationship with a girl named Carmen. This is also great because it shows that Ashley was not just influencing Spencer to adopt the "gay lifestyle." This promo for the show explores past and future parts of Spencer's life:

I feel mostly good about what the writers are doing with the character of Ashley. On the one hand, Ashley's confusion about what she wants could be seen as a negative portrayal of bisexuality, promoting the stereotype that bisexuals are just confused and are "fence-sitters." But knowing Ashley's background, this doesn't seem to be the image they are putting across. Rather Ashley's storyline seems to be an exploration of her own insecurities and fears as well as the struggle to distinguish between platonic and erotic love. Aiden is like Ashley's safe-zone -- they have this past together and she knows that he will always worship her. After she has been rejected by Spencer she goes to him. However, even while she is with him she continues to have long phone conversations with Spencer. On her dresser in her new apartment she prominently displays a photograph of her ex-girlfriend, while Aiden's photo is put in the background. Spencer is clearly the one that she loves while her love for Aiden is more a love for safety and comfort -- something that she didn't have with Spencer (she was always insecure, worried that Spencer would leave her, etc.) While her love for Aiden is of the platonic variety, she gives way to the erotic due to her fears of losing him as well. Here is the Ashley promo, which explores her character a bit as well:

The fact that this show is aimed towards such a young demographic is awesome. It is good for tweens and teens to see the multiple dimensions of sexual identity as well as the struggles that are faced by LGBT youth. And despite the outrage and criticism that the show has gotten from some Christian conservatives as well as the departure of one cast member for "moral reasons" the show's actors, while all heterosexual in reality, continue to embrace their roles as forerunners in this area: Mandy Musgrave (Ashley), Gabrielle Christian (Spencer), Maeve Quinlan (Paula) and others have sat on panels discussing the show and its implications, they have attended events such as the GLAAD (Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Awards and have been more than happy to be spokespeople for the gay rights cause. 21-year-old Mandy says, "I think it helps teens learn how to open up and express themselves. That it's okay to experiment if that's what they're feeling inside. A lot of people have been saying we've been turning viewers gay and I'm like, "No. They're just finally fed up and finally trying to be more open." I am proud of that. It's taken a lot to portray a bisexual or a lesbian; whatever you want to call Ashley. Some of my closest friends now are lesbians and I can't believe I am fortunate enough to have them in my life. I do this role for them because I want other people to know that it's okay."

Next step -- get a show like this on network TV!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Living Up to My Expectations

Recently I wrote about one of my favorite music acts, the Canadian sister duo Tegan and Sara. I said that they were releasing their fifth album at the end of July and I expected them to find continuing success.

Well, in just a short amount of time the twins seem to be everywhere! They were MSN artists of the month, featured musicians on MySpace and their new album has been getting rave reviews. editorial review states, "Tegan and Sara's star-making Juno-nominated album, So Jealous, was their fourth--and their fifth album, The Con, not only avoids any kind of slump but sets a new bar of quality quite high ... The Con reverberates with unabashed creativity, and it's a rare pleasure to hear it done so well. I would be surprised if another band this year made a better record--it's really that good." Says The New York Times, "Somehow The Con is even more obsessive sounding than Tegan and Sara’s earlier work, and it’s probably even better; it could well be one of the year’s best albums."

Congratulations, ladies!

Here they are playing their first single "Back in Your Head" on Conan O'Brien the other night

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Bratz Set Us Back

I promised in my last post that I wasn't going to write about little kid issues anymore (what generation would they be anyway? I'm considered "Generation Y" so I'm just going to the youngins as "Generation XX"). Anyway, despite this promise I feel compelled to bring up something else after reading this blog entry over on AfterEllen which discusses the upcoming Bratz film along with the Bratz phenomenon. In this entry the writer links to an article on the UK's "Daily Mail" entitled "Over-sexed and over here: The 'tarty' Bratz doll." The article is worth a read, but I will cite some of the information in here.

Little girls loooove the Bratz dolls. At the community center I worked at, we had xeroxed coloring pages of everything from Disney stuff to anime to fantasy to Sponge Bob and Hello Kitty. The Bratz coloring pages would disappear like nobody's business. The Bratz dolls, launched in 2001 by MGA entertainment, bring in about $3billion a year from the dolls and their accessories. Chief executive of the UK Bratz distributor, Nick Austin, says that "their edgy, streetwise style appeals to the post-Spice Girl generation." The author of the Daily Mail article, although despairing about the dolls, admits that they're undeniably appealing to girls, with their "catwalk chic, huge expressive faces and multi-ethnic skin tones." American product designer, Paula Treantafelles says that she designed the dolls to appeal to the 7 to 10 year olds that Mattel -- makers of Barbie -- was failing to reach.

And sure enough, the dolls are outselling Barbie at astonishing rates -- as much as 2 to 1 in the United Kingdom. Whereas Barbie used to be aimed towards girls 6-10, it now appeals to mostly 3-6 year olds while Bratz is taking over the older age group. Why? According to Treantafelles, "[Bratz] are about self-expression, self-identity. When Barbie was in her prime, girls were taught to be career women, to be men’s equals. Today, yes, career and education matter, but it’s also “express yourself, have your own identity, girl power."

And now, thanks to the Bratz dolls' ever-increasing popularity, Barbie has begun to follow-suit, creating a sort of "race to the bottom" in terms of appropriateness. Mattel recently came out with the "My Scene" Barbie dolls which include a "My Bling Bling" and "Street Style" Barbie doll. These dolls come complete with navel piercings and tattoos. And, no, this is not a joke. You can buy them on Amazon or any other online shopping site.

I don't even know where to begin. I spent the past two entries discussing the glimmers of hope for young girls in the media, but it is products like Bratz that are keeping these few positive influences from really making an influence. This past winter the American Psychological Association (APA) released a report stating that advertising and media images that encourage girls to focus on looks and sexuality are harmful to their emotional and physical health. In February 2007 they created the "Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls." USA Today wrote an article ("Media Cited for Showing Girls as Sex Objects") that detailed this report. The author explained that the APA spent 18 months analyzing over 300 studies that "included a variety of media, from television and movies to song lyrics, and looked at advertising showing body-baring doll clothes for pre-schoolers, tweens posing in suggestive ways in magazines and the sexual antics of young celebrity role models." The APA cited the Bratz dolls in particular: "Although these dolls may present no more sexualization of girls or women than is seen in MTV videos, it is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality."

Apparently the CEO of MGA Entertainment (the manufacturer of Bratz), Isaac Larian, strongly disagreed with the report, stating "These are the clothes that are worn if you go to schools anywhere in the USA. They are not sexy." An associate professor at NYU, Ann Pellegrini, voices concern over what she sees as a "panic" about the sexualization of children. According to her, "I do think girls and women are still profoundly objectified when it comes to sex, but there may well be some things that look like objectification that are being experienced by girls and young women that feel empowering." I think that this relates back to what I was discussing at the end of my last post where there is a fine line between encouraging girls to be proud of their bodies and promoting the sexualization of their bodies. Larian says that the clothes Bratz wear are the same as ones any girl would wear to school. I couldn't disagree more with this. One only needs to look at the Bratz dolls, covered heavily in make-up and wearing skin-tight, revealing clothes such as miniskirts and fishnet stockings to know that very few six-year-olds look like that. And no six-year-old should. There is a strong difference between sexuality -- how one feels/relates to her body -- and sex. Pellegrini is wrong when she suggests that images that sexualize young girls can be empowering. When empowerment is tied to looking thin, sexy and beautiful, this can actually be harmful to the sexuality of girls. Girls have lower self-esteem and self-image, thinking that they must look a certain way to be "powerful" or acceptable in society. This leads to a negative relationship between girls and their bodies: they try to mold themselves to be a certain way rather than celebrating who they are as individuals. Larian explains that young girls do not see Bratz as sexy, just as pretty. However, Larian is unable to critically examine the subliminal impact that dolls such as these have. No wonder the APA Chair, Dr. Eileen Zurbriggen, says that "sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development."

Not only that -- the message being sent to the male population is dangerous as well and contributes to the consequences listed above. From these media images, little boys receive their first messages about what girls should look like and how they should behave. Images that focus solely on the appearance of the female body are objectifying. It doesn't matter if it makes the girls feel good or not -- what is important is what these images are saying about women. And what they are saying is that the body continues to be the female's most important asset. As Dr. Zurbriggen states, "As a society, we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings - ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls."

Only those looking to commercialize on the sexualization of youth could argue with that. But unfortunately it is those people exactly that control what images are being put out. Once again, parents and other adults are left with the responsibility of trying to promote healthy body-images, high self-esteem and a sense of competence beyond appearance. Good luck with that.